by Raphael Badagliacca
The arrival of so many people all at once from so many different directions seemed like an invasion itself, and certainly one that surprised me. Although I have been a New Jersey resident for many years and a frequent theater goer, I confess that I had never been to the Paper Mill Playhouse, so, inevitably this is a review of an impressive performance and an impressive theater all in the same space.
It’s the story of Peter Noone (Jonny Amies), lead singer of Herman’s Hermits, and his pursuit of a woman who has stolen his heart at a time when a new British band seemed to appear on the scene every month to steal American hearts. Peter and the wholesomeness of his music which the audience in this cavernous space that seats 1,200 knows so well is in competition and sharp contrast with Trip, who represents the darker side of rock ‘n roll we all know only too well. Trip (Conor Ryan) and his agent Fallon (John Sanders) affect a Mick Jagger-like look and attitude. This outer conflict reflects the inner conflict the woman in question, Pamela (Erika Olson), a performer in her own right, experiences choosing between the two men. There is anguish and music in plenty, and all of the songs are recognizable, which makes it great fun and audience participatory in more than the usual fashion. The audience spontaneously applauded after certain songs and clapped the beat to others. At one point the lead invited the audience to sing along which it eagerly did.
If the story is a trip down memory lane for the protagonist, who became the group’s lead singer at the early age of 15, so it is also for the audience, triggered by the songs of its youth. The script is really a threading together of these songs to tell the tale, a musical that is mostly music that occasionally breaks into words, an interesting reversal. The dark and sunny sides battle each other through the songs and advance the plot. If I told you that two of the musical selections are “The House of the Rising Sun” and “Mrs. Brown You Have a Lovely Daughter” it would not be hard to locate on which side of the fence each stands.
The performance is something between a play and a concert where every song is a hit, each eliciting a pause for recognition followed by a wave of satisfaction which is audible. This is the right kind of performance for a space so large because the action is externally appealing, achieving a connection by transforming the audience into one, not to say there aren’t intimate interactions captured in the dialogue.
Everyone in the cast can sing. This shouldn’t be surprising, but it is. So, when Peter’s feisty mother (Jen Perry) who has been just one more character in the background suddenly steps up to belt out her advice in a song it’s to our satisfaction. There is a John Lennon character (Bryan Fenkhart) who takes the protagonist under his wing, and The Hammer (Daniel Stewart Sherman), a heavy in the employ of the darker forces who periodically takes Peter for a ride and threatens him along the way. As if to underline that this is a story about the ups and downs of life, much of the activity takes place on a spiral stairway, including a memorable scene where six or seven guitar players deliver the song of the moment.
If you know the music, you’ll enjoy the play. Something tells me… you’ll be into something good. Go see it, or should I say see it and hear it.
With Jonny Amies, Travis Artz, Gemma Baird, John Campion, Emma Degerstedt, Trista Dollison, Jay Donnell, Bryan Fenkart, Graham Scott Fleming, Douglas Goodhart, Cory Jeacoma, Sage Melcher, Erika Olson, Kyle Taylor Parker, Jen Perry, Conor Ryan, John Sanders, Daniel Stewart Sherman and Daniel Yearwood.
Producing artistic director: Mark S. Hoebee; managing director: Michael Stotts; scenic design: David Rockwell; lighting design: Kenneth Posner; costume design: Gregg Barnes; sound design: Andrew Kestler; projection design: Andrew Lazarow; hair & wig design: Josh Marquette; orchestrations: Francisco Centeno, Clint DeGanon, Lon Hoyt, John Putnam; production stage manager: Tripp Phillips; music supervision & arrangements: Lon Hoyt.
Paper Mill Playhouse remaining dates runs Wednesdays through Sundays February 13 through March 3: Wednesdays 7:30; Thursdays 1:30 & 7:30; Fridays 8:00; Saturdays 1:30 & 8:00; Sundays 1:30 & 7:00. Tickets: 973-376-4343 or papermill.org.